On October 21 2021, a Facebook post “PSA” circulated virally, advising individuals to change their voicemail message in the event they ever got lost while hiking, or in some other remote setting.
One popular version read:
If you are ever lost while hiking, get stranded with a broken-down car, etc and you notice your cell phone is either low on power or has no signal, here is a tip that very well may save your life. 🤳📩💯💛🆘
Change the voicemail on your phone to a message that gives your approximate location, the time, the date, your situation (lost, out of gas, car broken down, injured, etc) and any special instructions such as you are staying with the car, you are walking toward a town, etc…. The best part of this is that even if your cell phone dies or stops working, voicemail still works, so anyone calling your phone looking for you will hear the message and know where to find you or where to send help! ‼️‼️‼️‼️‼️‼️‼️‼️‼️
I 💞 yall! Protect each other and our children 💞💞💞💞
HELP SAVE LIVES
As is often the case, initial responses were effusive in the comments section, but as also often the case, it did not take long for similarly viral responses to appear. The original post’s relative popularity was evident in the manner by which response posts circulated — typically political Facebook page “The Other 98%” shared a screenshot of a “Coquitlam Search and Rescue” post addressing the advice, and screenshots of a “Halifax Search and Rescue response were similarly viral.
Both responses were originally posted on October 22 2021. The post from “Coquitlam Search and Rescue” post said:
There is a “viral” post being shared in outdoor, hiking, and other community groups on Facebook that recommends you change your voice mail with a recording of where you are rather than calling 911.
This post contains some potentially LIFE THREATENING MISINFORMATION.
First, if you have a weak signal or a low battery and need help, DO NOT WASTE TIME trying to change your voice mail, call 911 immediately.
If you use up the last of your battery changing your voice mail, nobody is going to know you need help.
Second, you cannot change your voice mail when you have no cellular signal. It’s just not possible.
What you should do is make use of the AdventureSmart trip planning app: https://www.adventuresmart.ca/trip-plan-app/
You can use this app to let a trusted friend where you’re going, when to expect you back, and it will alert them if you do not check in. You can use this for any backcountry activity and even for other activities like driving long distances where cell service may be spotty.
Politely let your friends and contacts know that this post, while well meaning, is not good information and should not be shared.
The “Halifax Search and Rescue” post included a screenshot of the original (with “do not do this” appended), and it stated:
Every once in a while we see trends going around social media that we need to address.
The latest is the idea about changing your voicemail if you’re lost. First off, you cannot change your voice mail when you don’t have a cellular signal. If your battery is low, and you are lost or need rescue, DIAL 911 and tell dispatchers where you are. This call will initiate the process to dispatch Police and #GSAR.
To be blunt. Wasting time changing your voicemail could be the last thing you do. If you don’t call for help, and you didn’t leave a trip plan, NOBODY IS COMING TO GET YOU.
Conserve your cell battery. If your battery is low, remember that text messages take far less battery to transmit. Halifax Search and Rescue may attempt to connect with you via text if we know your battery is low. Stay off your phone except to speak with Police. Don’t call your friends and family while you’re waiting for rescue.
Trip plan. Train. Take the essentials. Be BC AdventureSmart.
Also on October 22 2021, a Reddit account started a thread on r/Vancouver with the title, “PSA: Please stop spreading this viral PSA”:
All three of the rebuttals included similar warnings about budgeting resources, namely phone battery or intermittent signal. All three urged anyone lost or stranded to concentrate efforts on calling for help, and all recommended pre-excursion efforts (such as the use of an app called AdventureSmart).
One Reddit comment at the top of the thread included both emphasis on calling 911, and why the more complex advice was virally popular:
“Also, even if you don’t have a signal, try calling 911. If ANY carrier has any signal at all you will connect via their signal. 911 calls will go through on whatever signal your phone can find, it is not dependent on your carrier.”
“This is the only real ‘tip that can save your life'”
“Ah, but ‘Just call 9-11, dumbass’ isn’t going to go viral with its intricate cleverness.”
Yet another October 22 2021 rebuttal was shared by the “Skamania County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue” page. It included detail on how to harness a better signal, and offered tips:
Recently a Facebook post has gone viral telling people to “update their voice mail” if their battery is going low. This is not the best advice, and will likely not work. We would like to ask that you not follow this advice, clarify why this is bad advice, and suggest better options.
STAY WITH YOUR VEHICLE, STAY NEAR A ROAD OR TRAIL. If you have any battery life, send a text message. It only takes a fraction of a second of data reception to get that message out. This has a much better chance to make it through than updating your voice mail.
Why is the circulated post/meme poor advice?
1. Anything using voice on your phone uses up far more battery than texts/SMS. Do not use voice if your battery is running low.
2. A detailed SMS message uses a fraction of the data that a voice message uses, and can transmit using a much weaker signal than a voice call requires. If you have a weak signal, SMS will transmit when voice will not.
3. If you don’t have a signal, you can’t change your VM. Don’t waste your battery attempting this
What should you do instead?
If you have a signal and plenty battery-power, call 911. Be sure to have your location with GPS coordinates ready.
But this scenario deals with low battery power and poor signal…
1. Turn off WiFi and Bluetooth and put your phone in airplane mode (or turn off cellular) to conserve power.
2. Compose an SMS message to all your trusted contacts. Text only – no images or attachments. Write where you are (as best as you can, bonus points for GPS coordinates!), your condition, and any info needed to locate you. It is FAR easier for a hasty team to locate a vehicle on a road/trail than to locate a person that has gone off into the brush. You can also text 911, but be aware that text 911 is NOT functional in all areas of the country.
3. When you are happy with your detailed SMS message, turn off airplane mode (or turn your cellular back on), send, and cross your fingers that your tiny SMS data-packet gets out to us! Outgoing texts will retry for a while if low/no signal, then cancel. Check to make sure your text went out. Moving a little to avoid hills and trees may help.
4. STAY WITH YOUR VEHICLE, STAY NEAR A ROAD OR TRAIL.
5. If that doesn’t work, our team will be sending in Thing 1 (pictured) and Thing 2 to get you. (Assuming you told someone where you were going and when you’d be back. You did remember to tell someone your plans, right?)
Skamania County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue
The PSA advising people who become lost in the wilderness or while hiking to change “the voicemail on your phone to a message that gives your approximate location, the time, the date, your situation (lost, out of gas, car broken down, injured, etc) and any special instructions such as you are staying with the car, you are walking toward a town, etc.” spread virally in multiple iterations. Within a day, multiple search and rescue Facebook pages responded to the posts, largely in disagreement with its advice. Those organizations universally advised conserving battery, only calling 911, using airplane mode to extend battery life, and sending a detailed text message in lieu of (or before) changing outgoing voicemail — the last being a strategy that was unlikely to work as well as texting in areas of intermittent or low signal.